It seems quite clear to me that of the arts — music, paintings, poetry — the one which should absorb our interest more than any other is contemporary art, the work which is being done here and now. The Mirror, the Echo, the Conscience, even the Spectre of today, we cannot deny it. Whether we like it or not, it is part of ourselves and to disregard it is to miss an integral experience of our lives.
The great work of the past is there, solid, admirable, inevitable, but to attend at the creation of the art of our time, to encourage and to sympathize — and with luck to take part in it— that is the unique and privileged opportunity that comes of being born at a certain time and in a certain place.
— Peter Pears
On Friday afternoon, January 28, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi performed works by Ligeti, Mozart and Dvorák. I attended this concert (but could not go on opening night) specifically to experience the first piece, Ligeti’s Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe. It is one of Ligeti’s lesser-known works, and the BSO’s performance represented a rare concert opportunity to hear music that undoubtedly gets a bit lost in translation on the way to a home stereo or laptop speakers. By 1972, when Ligeti completed the score, he was adept at integrating a variety of techniques with the sound-mass processes he first explored in Atmospheres in 1960. I anticipated closing my eyes as a slowly evolving, microtonally-inflected haze crept through the hall. Unfortunately, what I witnessed instead was a churlish, even brutish display of disrespect by enough audience members that the transportive potential of the so-called “Ligeti effect” was completely thwarted.
As a contemporary composer and an admirer of almost all that Ligeti wrote, this was a profoundly disheartening, disturbing situation. Perhaps for those in attendance exclusively for the Classical and Romantic portions of the program, this work, and this category of Ligeti’s output — glacially paced chromatic counterpoint with an emphasis on timbre — is the least palatable of the composer’s oeuvre. However, this audience’s inability to sit quietly, and suspend its skepticism for less than fifteen minutes as a world-class guest conductor led the BSO through a masterwork of one of the post-war era’s most influential, revered composers, was disgraceful.
With the scaled-down orchestra (no violins) gradually transforming its timbre, shape and harmony at a dynamic level of ppp, like a cloud slowly drifting and changing shape on a windless afternoon, people throughout the hall, whispered, groaned, coughed, squeaked their boots, and banged against their seats. Four minutes into the piece, a woman two rows behind me snorted, “This music is disgusting!” A couple of minutes later, the woman sitting next to me noisily shook several wintergreen Tic Tacs into her hand and proceeded to suck on them audibly. Next, the man directly in front of me, after sighing disapprovingly several times, stood up, slammed his chair against its seat back, and practically stomped out of the hall!
It bears mentioning that Ligeti, who was born in 1923 and died in 2006, would be eighty-seven years old today, — not exactly an enfant terrible of the twenty-first century — and certainly older, if only by a decade or two, than most of these intolerant, closed-minded “protesters.”. Furthermore, of all his post-war, European peers, Ligeti, and particularly the “sound mass” portion of his canon, should be quite familiar to American audiences after the well-known use of his Requiem, Atmospheres and Lux Aesterna in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (to be noted: without the composer’s permission). The point is, this audience should have had some prior awareness of what they were going to hear. This was not the premiere of an obscure, contemporary, radical conceptualist, and regardless of one’s opinion of a piece, destroying the listening experience for others in a concert is appalling and unacceptable, particularly from a crowd that doubtless fancies itself “cultured” and “refined.”
Predictably, the antics ceased for Mozart and Dvorák.
Though the bitter residue from the crowd’s reaction to Ligeti was fresh, it would be irresponsible to ignore the exhilarating virtuosity displayed by German violinist Arabella Steinbacher in her BSO debut, performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D. Dohnányi led the orchestra in blossoming dramatically through the striking dynamic contrasts which characterize the first movement. The chromaticism and rhythmic displacement of the second theme gives it a side-winding, serpentine quality. This was accentuated lusciously by Dohnányi and Steinbacher’s subtle interpretations in this theme’s various guises throughout the ritornello and solo sections.
The highlights of the performance were Steinbacher’s remarkably inspired cadenzas in the first and second movement. The first movement cadenza was particularly noteworthy; the young violinist displayed extraordinary insight, skillfully contrasting patient, elegaic introspection with the fanfare-like jubilation of the movement’s opening phrase. The result was transcendent.
The second half of the program consisted solely of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7. Completed and premiered in the Spring of 1885 (after a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in London — the only commission the composer ever received), the work is heavily influenced by Brahms and represents the Dvorák’s most ambitious effort. During the work’s composition, he was stylistically conflicted. As Richard Freed wrote in his program notes to a performance by the National Symphony in 2009, Dvorák was unsure whether he should “proceed in the Czech national character with which his music had become so readily identified — and so enthusiastically accepted — or to adopt a more ‘international’ approach (which is to say, a German one) in a bid for the still broader level of recognition enjoyed by Brahms.”
Ultimately, Dvorák achieved a seamless integration of both, utilizing German Romantic form, harmony and processes of development with numerous infusions of the modality and character of the folk music of his native region. The predominant, defining characteristic though, is one of Brahmsian tragedy shot through at various turns with optimism, ambition, pastoralism, and triumph.
Dohnányi embodied the extremes of these passions completely. The orchestra basked in the sublime, sweeping landscape of the woodwind-dominated Poco Adagio second movement. The third movement was spectacular, with Dohnányi punching through the off-kilter Scherzo, which brilliantly juxtaposes patterns of three against two, again reminiscent of Brahms and his rhythmic complexity. Indeed, as cited in the program notes to the performance, no less an authority than critic Donald Tovey placed this work alongside Brahms’s four symphonies as “among the greatest and purest examples of this art-form since Beethoven” (from Volume II of Tovey’s Essays in Music Analysis, 1935).
One of the most magical moments of the symphony is the mid-movement dissolution of the Scherzo’s intricate ferocity. After a complete stoppage on a tutti D in octaves, an almost rhythmically amorphous section marked Poco meno mosso emerges. If Ligeti’s indignant detractors had been listening closely, they might have heard a precursor to his Double Concerto’s deceptive nebulousness in this passage, amid the heavily articulated Romantic sophistication that surrounds it. By coincidence, as this segment emerges from an unharmonized D, the most dramatic points of arrival and departure in the first movement of Ligeti’s Double Concerto occur as sudden orchestral unisons. It seems for the greatest composers, the time-proven formal techniques of the past are never far out of mind.
Lastly, it would be neglectful to leave unmentioned the BSO’s trombones and horns, who filled the hall with a blinding, resonant effervescence during the fourth movement, elevating the symphony to an unforgettably epic climax and finale. It was glorious, and almost enough to alleviate my outrage over the unfortunate way in which the afternoon began.